This is my approach to songwriting, one that has brought me a lot of joy and a lot of peace…and a lot of songs! But don’t take anything I say too seriously here. Take what resonates with you and leave the rest!
Without question, songwriting is the most fulfilling activity in my world. When I’m writing a song, I’m present. What a gift! And I experience my world – the truth and the lies that I know. The pain, grief, shame, joy, beauty, and love. Songwriting is a blank slate for all of it. And the act of songwriting can be powerfully therapeutic. It gives me the opportunity to distill thoughts and emotions into a piece of art. I can’t think of anything I love to do more.
So for those of you who are interested in writing songs, let’s start with the age old question – what comes first, music or lyrics?
I’d argue neither comes first. Although, both can come first. But there is no definitive first or second. I’ve started songs with a cool chord progression. I’ve started songs with an interesting lyric. But, most often I start with an idea. From there, the music and the lyrics work together to support and explore that idea.
This may seem nebulous, so let’s get concrete.
I’m currently working on a song that explores life after death. Within my circle of friends and family, I have a lot of differing viewpoints about this topic. And I find it fascinating. The practice of yoga taught (and teaches) me about breath. And in those still and quiet moments, where my mind is wiped clean, I feel the presence of life. So I wondered, how does breath relate to the afterlife?
That was my starting point. In this instance, lyrics followed the idea (below). And that’s what we’ll focus on today.
Is life just the moment at the top of a breath?
And death an exhale, a measure of rest?
Are we born out of endless inhales past?
Is it even worth wasting now to ask?
I didn’t sit down and spit out these 4 lines. I spent a fair amount of time editing, ruminating, and speaking them out loud, over and over. I wanted to compare the past, present and future with inhales and exhales. Here are a few ways I got here.
Pen and Paper
Although we live in the digital age, I find physically writing out lyrics to be a faster way to get at what I mean. Instead of deleting a line, I can cross it out. This allows me to see the progression of ideas. And who knows? Maybe that lyric will work if I change the line before it. I also like putting parentheses around words that I may want to switch out. You can do all this digitally. And if that works for you, awesome. The best practice I can suggest is not deleting. Personally, I like seeing my thoughts in my own handwriting (no matter how messy).
Say What You Mean, Not What Rhymes
This is something I stand by. When you begin songwriting, it’s easy to get all “rhymey.” If you don’t care about the clarity of your point, have at it. But if you do care, the inclination to rhyme will compromise your message. Say what you mean, not just what rhymes. This can be a challenge, but that’s the beauty of our language. There are endless words at our disposal, and endless arrangements in which to put them. So if you get in a rut, there’s absolutely no shame in pulling up a rhyming dictionary! It’s a very useful tool. Especially for learning new words and finding slant rhymes. Slant rhymes are an awesome way to navigate the rhyming challenge. In my example above, I rhyme the words, “breath, rest, past and ask.” None of these are direct rhymes. But they sound lovely together.
Use a Thesaurus
I have expanded my vocabulary in the practice of songwriting. If you have a word that means what you want to say, but it doesn’t fit, look for synonyms! I do this all the time. It can make for a more eloquent message, while improving the ability to express yourself.
Everything you write has syllables. Syllable has three syllables. And lyrics (soon to be melodies) with syllabic similarities can be powerful. However, just like rhyming, you don’t want to pigeonhole your message into a strict frame. In the example above, the first line has 12 syllables, the second line 10, the third line 10, and the fourth line 10. They don’t line up perfectly but having a similar number of syllables makes for an easier time writing melodies and counter-melodies. This is not a hard and fast rule, but simply a tool. You don’t use a hammer to drill a hole. Use it when it makes sense.
Symbols. Symbols. Symbols. The world symbol is a symbol to describe a symbol. Let that sink in. Every single word is a symbol, our best guess at describing something we know or believe to be true. Every word I’m using to communicate to you right now is a symbol. We agree upon symbols and that’s why they work. If I say, “hey look at that tree,” you know what I’m talking about, because we both agree to call that thing a tree. Don Miguel Ruiz is a huge inspiration of mine. He maps this out clearly in the book, “The Fifth Agreement.” The easiest way to start using symbolism in your lyrics is to employ the power of metaphors and similes. We’re using words (symbols) to describe an abstract idea, which creates a new, even more complex symbol. The use of metaphors and similes bring your lyricism to the next level. Instead of saying, “my room is messy” you could say, “my room is like the aftermath of a tornado,” or, “my room is the aftermath of a tornado.” Here is an example of a chorus I wrote using symbolism.
The lies in my mind, they fly around like starlings
The lies are LIKE starlings (simile)
Murmurs cloud the sky as dusk falls ‘fore night
A murmur is the term used for a large group of starlings. Here I’m saying murmurs (lies) cloud the sky (my mind). I’m not directly saying the lies are like murmurs, I already established that with a simile. I’m also not directly saying the sky is my mind, I already established that image in the first line. This is an example of a metaphor.
I may lose my way but know I love you darling
Stay sharp sweetheart, from the depths I’ll come out crawling
There are endless tools I could talk about (alliteration, internal rhyme, personification, pathetic fallacy, etc.) to spice up your lyrics. But the 5 suggestions above will start you on a great path toward writing meaningful pieces.
Pick a topic. Open your notebook or a blank document. Start writing (the most important part). Aim for 4 lines. If you only get 2, great. If you get 20, great. It’s not about getting the perfect line at first. Seriously, it’s not. Those throwaway lines are necessary to get to what you really want to say. Distill your idea into a beautiful pearl. Sift through the sand to find the gold flakes. Use your tools to build something no one has built before.
In the next section I will explain my method of using music to support an idea. I will discuss how to apply lyrics to music, and music to lyrics. Remember, this is just how I go about writing a song. Take what works for you and leave the rest!